sexuality and faith

When A Question Broke My Heart

“I’ve already had sex. That means God can’t love me. Right?”

My heart died a little the day the eighth grader asked me that question. It was in an abstinence support group I was leading in one of the local public high schools. No religion allowed. Just the facts, ma’am.

This brave, broken girl was only 14 years old, on that rocky divide between woman and child. And she was already sexually active. She came from a “good” home: two parents, stay-at-home mom, father who brought in the big bucks after working long hours. They lived on an island of privilege in a sea of borderline poverty. They attended a large church. She spent as much time at church functions as she did at school extracurriculars. I share this because I’m shocked by how many christians believe if they the parents do everything right, their children will remain virgins until marriage. Or at least until they are engaged. Because, oh my God, sex! It’s evil, it’s wrong. Avert your eyes, my children, until you say I do, and then through some sort of magic, sex becomes the right thing to do. It’s your duty, don’t you know.

Our group met once a week in the high school, a school she attended because her parents wanted her to be in the world while learning to be not of it. As a facilitator I had gotten to know each girl’s story, teased out what they knew about sex – biology and psychology. Who were their mentors and teachers of all things sexuality. While the majority of girls learned about the birds and the bees from their health class – with a little additional exposition from a parent or older sibling and continued “education” from peers – this girl had learned only about abstinence within the hallowed halls of church purity culture. Don’t do it. Save yourself for marriage. You are your virginity and once that’s gone, well, you will always be a broken doll. Why? Because Jesus and Pastor So-And-So said so.

She was shamed into remaining pure. And that shame, plus lack of knowledge, kept her at her older boyfriend’s beck and call.

She had been pulled from the units in health class that focused on reproduction and sex education. The wisdom of youth leaders and her parents would be enough to keep her pure until she married. She was kept so busy she shouldn’t have time to think about boys. Or dating. Or, God forbid, sex.

But she joined my group. A voluntary group where the focus was on abstinence and how to make good choices, but my focus was on relationships and education. Perhaps some of my experience, some of my hard won wisdom could help even one of these girls. I wasn’t going to preach purity to them. Instead, I helped them understand they had options. And how to weigh the consequences of those options. Some of this was totally outside of where my girls were developmentally, so I tried so hard to have open dialogue and to be a safe person to come to with questions. I was not there to judge. I was not there to parent. My job was to educate.

Since all the girls in my group were sexually active in one way or another, I asked them the question “How does having sex make you feel? Is it like how you thought it would make you feel?” One by one all the girls admitted feelings of shame, confusion, anger. So we talked about that. One girl loudly blamed the boys she had sex with. It was always about them, never her. Maybe she needed a real man. So we talked about what was normal developmentally at various ages. About statutory rape. About consent. We spoke of birth control. Of saying no and what coercion can look like. About the fact that guys get to say no as well. We talked about abstinence and how that may be appropriate developmentally. And how that at any time one could choose to be abstinent, just as one could choose to be sexually active. We spoke about abuse, self-esteem, and how hard it is to be the only one who feels like she isn’t doing it when the rest of the world is. How once we have sex, we will forever carry around something from that person with us. We discussed consequences.

Then one week we talked about how sex made them feel, deep, deep down inside. Ashamed. Scared. Loved but afraid that love will go away if we say no. Powerful, but only for a little while.  Uncertain. Special. Dirty. Confused.

And that was when she raised her hand and whispered her fear that God could no longer love her.

My heart was breaking and I wanted to cry as I asked her why she thought that God couldn’t love her. Not wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Couldn’t. Like if there was one single act a human could perform that would cause God to turn away from us forever, that act would be sex outside of marriage.

She told us all in those quiet words that she was told by her youth pastor that a girl who has sex before marriage is forever damaged. That God prizes our purity above all. She painfully recounted how her parents would speak of the child of another family in church with condemnation. Why? Because this child had gotten pregnant at the age of sixteen. How horrible it was. How the troubles this family was now seeing were due to the sin of the child. And that the sin of the child was likely due to the sin of a parent. The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the sinful tree. How another family was reeling from the news that their college aged daughter had been raped. Well, you know how those liberal state schools are – a breeding ground for sin and temptation. They should have sent her to a faith-based school. She was probably asking for it, anyway, with her skimpy shirts and short skirts.

I wanted to take those parents in hand and smack them. I wanted to share some words with that youth pastor. But even more, I wanted to take that girl and wrap my arms around her and tell her God loves her. God believes in her. And that we are not defined solely by our past or present. I shared my story. Molested as a young child by male babysitters. My own acting out and promiscuity. A boyfriend in college who was a predator and decided that broken me was just who he was looking for. Years of shame, anger, pain. Of carrying the guilt that wasn’t mine and acting out in unhealthy ways – not because sex is an unhealthy activity, but because of my motives.  And above all, of learning that God loves me.

He loved me when I was being abused. He loved me when I was the one doing the abusing. He loved me through it all. And that right there – that is humbling, my friends. It didn’t matter what was done to me or what I chose to do, God loved me through it. That didn’t negate the natural consequences of my choices, or the fact that I had to deal with the consequences of the choices and actions of other people. Consequences don’t just go away because God loves us. But that love, that perfect love, that can help us work through and heal from those consequences.

God’s love isn’t something that is relegated only for the pure. And who can judge purity anyway? God’s love is for all of us. God’s forgiveness is for all of us. For all have sinned. All have missed the mark. All have wandered from the law. All. Of. Us. And guess what. God loves us anyway.

This is what I was able to tell this girl. I didn’t tell her she needed to repent – so many in the church have the concept of repentance wrong anyway. I didn’t tell her God would forgive her. I told her what she needed to know. God does love her. God will always love her. That won’t make the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of having sex go away. But it removes the shame. And once the shame is gone, we can have open conversations about those consequences and whether we are willing to continue paying them or whether we want something different. She had been continuing having sex because she felt she was already so broken there were no other choices. It wasn’t the boys she was having sex with telling her this. It was her church. It was her parents. It was a culture that prizes virginity and purity more than it prizes people.

I don’t know where she is now. It’s been fifteen years. I hope she’s found a life she wants to live. I pray she knows God loves her with a fierce and holy love.

Please, dear Christians, think about this girl who was so broken because someone told her that her virginity was valued above all else, that sexual purity was the standard God was holding her to and to step outside of that was to invite the wrath of God. Think about her the next time someone comes to you with questions. Or comes to you broken. What are you going to live out for them? Are you going to condemn? Heap coals upon their already fragile heads? Or are you going to love them as Jesus loved? It’s not our place to judge. It’s not our job to save. It’s ours to love. We got that so mixed up somewhere along the way.

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I Want Your Sex – Sexual Identity and the Church

I have had many things on my mind lately. I’m a thinker. I like to sit and ponder things, churning them over and over again in my brain until I either come to some sort of conclusion or I realize I need to put this line of thinking aside for the time being.

I read a very interesting post on a friend’s blog, one that got me thinking about the deeper levels of identity and ignited within me, again, the question of why the faith community in general is afraid to “go there” with certain topics. Specifically, why do we avoid the subject of sex and healthy sexual identity? Especially with those who have been sexually abused, enslaved, or otherwise mistreated?

I’m not going to blast anyone for their sexual orientation or their kinks. Jesus never did, why should I? I am going to state right off the bat, this post is not about whether being homosexual is right or wrong. It shouldn’t be an issue. We are to love everyone, right? And under the law of the land, everyone has rights, correct? And whether you are gay or straight or something in between, you have the right to be treated with compassion and to be seen as God’s creation, correct? Then let’s agree on what we can and move forward. Okay with you? Good.

When I was a child, I was sexually abused by babysitters. I was exposed to inappropriate sexual material, I was encouraged to touch the genitals of at least one babysitter, and I was fondled by yet another. In my teens, it was an old and infirm grandfather who sexualized me and my developing body. And that’s just what I feel open to sharing on this blog. There was more, much more. Why do I share this? Because the statistics share a horrific story:

Women

1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape).1

17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.1
9 of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003.2

Lifetime rate of rape /attempted rape for women by race:1
  • All women: 17.6%
  • White women: 17.7%
  • Black women: 18.8%
  • Asian Pacific Islander women: 6.8%
  • American Indian/Alaskan women: 34.1%
  • Mixed race women: 24.4%

Men

About 3% of American men — or 1 in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.1

  • In 2003, 1 in every ten rape victims were male.2
  • 2.78 million men in the U.S. have been victims of sexual assault or rape.1

Children

15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.3

  • 29% are age 12-17.
  • 44% are under age 18.3
  • 80% are under age 30.3
  • 12-34 are the highest risk years.
  • Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.

7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.4

  • 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.

In 1995, local child protection service agencies identified 126,000 children who were victims of either substantiated or indicated sexual abuse.5

  • Of these, 75% were girls.
  • Nearly 30% of child victims were between the age of 4 and 7.

93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker.6

  • 34.2% of attackers were family members.
  • 58.7% were acquaintances.
  • Only 7% of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim. [online source]

I never reported my abuse. I didn’t realized anything was wrong enough to report. I thought the lack was in me. Not in the ones abusing and misusing me. Instead, I internalized what these abusers, the church community, and others were telling me about sexuality in general and my sexuality specifically, letting it become a twisted and raw mess.

When I was in high school I started to learn to use my sexuality to get my way. I learned to target the boys who were not popular, the smart geeks who either faded into the background or who were favorite targets of the jocks for ridicule. And I used my sexuality to gain their adoration. I was a vampire feeding on their adolescent lust, using the fact I had breasts and curves to toy with their affection. I was a young woman who knew far more than she should about the power of sex but didn’t know enough about the links between shame and guilt and the cycles of abuse.

I didn’t realize I was harming others while I was punishing myself for being a sexual being. I was just doing what the other girls were doing – flirting. Only I wasn’t trying to land the popular and hot guys. I was aiming low because I didn’t feel I deserved anything better. And it made me feel good to know there were guys out there who would do things for me for the price of my smile. That’s heady, heady stuff for a teenager. especially for a teenager who had no idea what it really meant to be a sexual being who is beloved by God. And my lack of that knowledge and my shame laced confusion led me to some very risky behavior, including a night of sexual experimentation with another woman. After which I can conclusively say I am not a lesbian. However, would I have even gone down that road if I had known what God really thinks about our sexuality. And what God really thinks about the person who has been sexually victimized.

I have had therapy. I have worked through many of my issues and I’ve been married for 19 years to a man with whom I have a good sexual life. God has been healing my identity, and this includes my sexual identity. We are whole people to God. We aren’t sacred and secular. He’s not just in love with our hearts and our spirits. He loves all of us. Our entire being. Our intellect, our hearts, our bodies, our souls, our sexuality. He really does. I’ve believed this for well over 20 years. Ever since that night of experimentation when I heard God tell me He loved me far more than I loved myself at that moment and He was going to do whatever it took to help me love my entire being. He knew that I had issues with my sexuality, that I loathed it. That I had been shamed into thinking I had to suppress this side of myself in order to fit in at church and youth group even as I used it to my advantage elsewhere. That sex was dirty, wrong. That I was dirty and wrong. I believed that I could either be sexual or I could be moral, but I couldn’t be both.

This is the lie I want to address, and this is the lie that I see taught over and over again in the church. Please know, I realize not every believer lives with this dichotomy. If you are one of these people, I thank God you exist and please continue to speak God’s truth. For everyone else, I have a question – Why do you believe we can either be moral/spiritual people or sexual people but not both?

Over the last 20 years, I have seen men and women struggle with their sexual identity. I have seen both genders succumb to porn addictions, seek out affairs (sexual and emotional), engage in destructive sexual practices time and time again. And this is what I’ve seen when abuse hasn’t been a root cause. I have also heard women proclaim that they wish they enjoyed sex. That they didn’t feel they had a voice during sex, that it was all about their partner, that to voice a need or a want was somehow wrong. I’ve heard men complain that they don’t know what their women want and why couldn’t there be a magic pill to allow their wives to have a higher sex drive, and really, what do they need to do to ensure their wives feel pleasure during sex.

I have heard men and women miss the mark when it comes to sex and sexuality. They treat it as an act to be performed or desired. They don’t seem to understand that it is part of who they are and there is so much more to sexuality than intercourse.

I have heard stories of women who have no idea what is normal and who are either afraid to ask or are unable to find someone who will talk to them freely and without judgement.

I have seen teens dress and act provocatively without understanding the message about themselves they are broadcasting, confused because the message they receive from the world around them is the more provocative and blatant the better. And not knowing why they aren’t fulfilled if they do engage in some form of sexual activity.

I have seen people throw themselves into sexual relationships without understanding the natural consequences that exist beyond STDs and pregnancy. That they are forever going to carry around with them a part of each partner they have sex with, and that they are chasing an adrenaline high rather than true intimacy. That their behavior may become more extreme or more risky so they can continue to feel…something.

All I hear from the church is “wait until you are married and then be faithful” or ” you’re married now, your body is not your own so when he/she wants it, you have to give it” or ” Homosexuality is bad, the end.”

I’m sorry, but this is not helpful. Shaming someone for their behavior does not help that person develop a healthy sexual identity. All it does is push them further away from realizing who God made them to be.

What I learned about my sexual identity I learned through the Holy Spirit and through non-Christian friends and resources. God protected me and helped me to draw out the truth from these resources so I didn’t end up falling down the rabbit hole of misinformation. When I asked other newly married women in my church about whether their husbands wanted sex far more often than they did, they shut me down. Didn’t want to talk about it. That was private and taboo. When I talked to my other friends, they were more than willing to talk about the subject, and how difficult it was to be in the mood all the time, helpful ways they found for speaking with their spouses, and how intimacy and sexuality were interlinked.

It took me going elsewhere to learn about my sexual identity. The church offered me nothing helpful. When I needed to talk about what was normal and healthy when it came to expressing my sexuality, I didn’t find help in the church. I found that elsewhere as well. Those candid conversations that helped me to see that instead of connecting with men on a real level, I was using my sexuality to basically enthrall them, I didn’t get that from my youth group leaders. I got that from a group of women who were in the S&M community. They were the ones who helped me to see that I was abusing those men by alluding to promises I never intended to keep and using their vulnerability against them.

When it came to integrating my sexuality into my full identity, well that came from the Holy Spirit. I was in college and dating the man who would become my husband. I was tired of people – Christians –  telling me I was too sexual, or that I was going to lead this man astray. They had no idea what was going on in our relationship. They didn’t know the discussions we had, the honest communication about my past history or his. All they knew was they perceived me of being this siren who was going to lead good men astray. Imagine carrying that burden with you. Basically, they were telling me I wasn’t worthy of the love of a good man because I was a sinful creature. I was a succubus who was going to bleed him dry.

Then one day what was happening became clear. A prior boyfriend was watching the music video for Amy Grant’s hit Baby Baby. He made a point of taping the video and bringing it, a television and a VCR to my dorm and “forced” me to watch the video. His intent was to shame me by drawing parallels between Amy’s flirtatious behavior in the video, behavior that had men watching her instead of their own girlfriends. If you have ever seen Amy Grant, sure she exudes this earthy and lovely sexuality but it’s wholesome, not lewd.

And this is what was finally clear that day – what others were seeing wasn’t a woman who was highly sexualized and perhaps even a predator. They were seeing someone who was becoming comfortable with her sexuality and didn’t shove it in a closet. I would be kind and gentle and match the energy of those I was talking to, giving them my full attention. And my facial expressions, my body language, that was a part of that. Was I still using my body to garner the wrong kind of attention? No. Was I attempting to turn men’s heads so they would notice my body and fall in deep lust with me? No, I was not.

What was I doing? What I do today. I was being myself. I was being open and friendly. I was being comfortable in my own skin. I was feeling the joy of being in a new relationship and letting that joy be present on my face and in the movements of my body. I was learning that I am a woman who is loved by God. I would walk and move as one who was comfortable with her body and when I danced, I would move as a woman worshipping God with her body. People were noticing. And that was mistaken for being a temptress. I have to laugh now because I didn’t dress provocatively in college. I went to a Christian college with a dress code and I wasn’t one to attempt to push the boundaries of said code. Breasts were never bared, my midriff was always covered, nothing was too tight or too short. But something about my demeanor was obviously offending people.

I was being punished for their discomfort. Women, it seems, are always being punished when their very presence make someone uncomfortable. We are too loud, too brash, too meek, too pretty, too sexy, too much. Is that really how God sees us? Look at the Song of Solomon. If you need any further proof that God is in love with our sexuality, it’s there in the beautiful and haunting descriptions of two lovers and how they feel about each other’s hearts and bodies.

God loves us. And that includes our sexuality. God wants us to live fulfilled lives. That includes our sex lives. Now, before you go out and take this as permission to engage in risky behavior, a fulfilled life doesn’t mean doing what feels good. It means a life rich in relationship with God. God is present with us all the time. Did you read that? All. The. Time. In and out of the bedroom. During times of abuse and times of deep healing. When we turn our back on others and when others turn their backs on us. God is with us. As with everything we do, what we do and how we embrace our sexuality, it first and foremost is to be honoring to God.

God has a plan for our sexuality. He made us in His image, after all. Do I know what that is? No, not entirely. But I know this – there is a way to be sexual and to honor God. And repressing our sexuality is just as dishonoring to God as flaunting it or using it to harm others.

Just how different people of faith would be if we could understand how God sees our sexuality and if we were willing to openly discuss this within our communities of faith and with the world in general. Not pointing fingers or hawking chastity rings or burying our heads in the sand. If we want to be a culture that’s different, let’s take a cue from Jesus and get out there and love people and be honest with them. Let’s make sure we know what the God’s truth is about sex. Let’s remove the language of shame from our discussions. Let’s be willing to be gritty and honest and in the trenches with people. And, please oh please, let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s deal with our hangups and misconceptions and guilt and shame. Let’s finally see ourselves and our sexuality as God does. Amen.